Road & Track May 1964


This article is reproduced from the May 1964 issue of Road & Track. A friend sent this to me on a cd. It looks like it was scanned from a xerox and as such I apologize for the image quality. To my knowledge, this is the first vintage article anyone has posted on these cars.

Combining Italian coachwork with the familiar A-H Sprite mechanical bits

A newcomer among the sports cars currently offered on the American market is the Innocenti S, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be our old friend the Austin-Healey Sprite (or MG Midget) neatly disguised in Italian bodywork. Innocenti (pronounced "Innochenty") is better known as the manufacturer of the Lambretta motor scooter, an extremely successful Italian 2-wheeler. In order to expand its activities, Innocenti reached an agreement with the British Motor Corporation to assemble and market certain BMC products in Italy, and among them is the Sprite. This would appear to be an excellent arrangement for all concerned because it gives BMC an outlet in a Common Market country, and it permits Innocenti to offer a range of small cars suitable for the Italian market without investing in extensive manufacturing facilities.

Although Italy is thought of as a car manufacturing country of some stature, Fiat is the only producer of small sedans and, while the range and quality of its products are well known, there is a definite market for other makes of automobiles more utilitarian than Lancias and Alfas. This accounts in part for the multitude of Fiat derivatives which abound in Italy and offer something more and different than the production Fiat. By offering its own version of the BMC products, Innocenti has successfully tapped a part of the market and is now well established.

Another consideration is that there has been asurprising increase in and re-distribution of wealth in Italy since the war and a large car-owning middle class is rapidly emerging. The Innocenti range is obviously aimed at this new class and, having previously sold them Lambretta scooters, the company is now in a good position to trade them into small cars.

One of the most striking differences between the Innocenti S and the Sprite or Midget is the price; at $2920 West Coast POE, the Innocenti is some $800 more than its English cousins with similar equipment. Undoubtedly, a part of the price difference results from the relative inefficiency of a method of automobile construction which involves shipping components from one country to another and then assembling the automobile from parts from a variety of sources. However, this does not add to the value of the finished product.

Surprisingly enough, the car is almost entirely BMC, with the exception of the body, and such components as the electrical system, the instruments and some other more insignificant items. On our test car, the Veglia instruments were all strictly Italian, with a speedometer reading in kilometers and gauges for acqua, olio, benzina and giri. However, this presents no problem, with the exception of the speedometer, which requires a quick calculation to find out whether one is speeding or not. Future cars brought into America will be equipped with speedometers reading in miles.

The body was designed by Ghia, and it is a definite improvement over the current Sprite, although it must beremembered that the Sprite has come a long way in appearance since the original goggle-eyed little monster appeared. However, we felt that some of the Italian flair is lacking, and if the car was dressed up in one of those really exciting little coupe bodies, with perhaps a set of Borrani wheels, it would find a larger market in America at the price.

A welcome improvement over the BMC Sprite is the inclusion of wind up windows, which are slightly curved to add elbow room to the interior. When the top is in position, the interior is free of drafts and the car can be used comfortably in all weather. Another good feature is a locking glove compartment to contain one's valuable possessions when the car is left unattended with the top down. Our test car was not equipped with a tonneau cover, but this is offered as an optional extra, and the only other items necessary to make the car completely civilized are safety belts and a radio.

Although the interior of the car is both attractive and well laid out, the seating accommodation does not measure up too well in our new "driver comfort rating," which will be included in the data panel of all our future road tests. For drivers up to about 5 ft 9 in. it is excellent, but the rating drops off sharply for taller drivers, so that six-footers and over will find it pretty snug. The reason for this apparently is that it is extremely difficult to design a sports car with such diminutive proportions which will allow the tall driver sufficient room for his feet, knees and elbows.

On the road, the performance is as spritely as could be expected. Our test car was "factory-fresh" when we picked it up, and the inherent stiffness of a new BMC product was apparent. However , we were able to drive the car for several hundred miles before carrying out our test, and both the engine and transmission seemed to free up noticeably during that period. With 58 bhp at 5700 rpm and 60 Ib ft of torque at 3000 rpm , the power output is limited , but the weight of the car is only 1710 Ib with driver so the performance is quite lively.

Taking the car over one of our test roads, which is situated in hilly country and rises to a summit of 2600 feet , we were surprised to find that we were able to reach the top without dropping down to third gear more than twice. This was achieved with a 2-man test crew and equipment, giving a total weight of about 1925 Ib, and is a very credit able performance. However, the axle ratio is well suited to this type of driving because the engine is turning 3400 rpm at 50 mph, which is 400 rpm above the point of maximum torque. On the other hand, the situation is reversed under freeway driving conditions because the engine is turning at more than 4500 rpm at a cruising speed of 70 mph and this seems an excessively high engine speed for long periods of cruising.

The handling characteristics are almost identical to those of the Sprite, although the Pirelli Cinturatos on the Innocenti S seem to give it slightly better adhesion. The ride is comparatively hard and the combination of a short wheelbase and small wheels tends to make the car pitch on some surfaces. One can sail through fast turns at high speed without body lean and with the tail hung out slightly in true sports car fashion . The handling is practically neutral, with no unfortunate tendencies at all, and the BMC rack and pinion with two and a quarter turns lock to Jock insures positive and accurate steering.

To complement the road holding and steering, disc brakes are fitted at the front with drums at the rear, and this system seems to provide an almost indefinite number of high speed stops without complaint or deterioration in stopping ability.

These excellent characteristics make the Innocenti S a very good small sports car which accomplishes all it sets out to do, and it is admirably suited to the novice driver who wants to find out what sports car driving is all about. Although of small capacity, the engine is a willing worker and the svnchronization of the transmission has been much improved since the Sprite was first introduced, but 1st gear is still of the crash variety. Over a period of years, the Sprite has proved itself to be a rugged, reliable and economical sports car to operate, and all the good features of the car are present in the Innocenti S.

However, assessing the relative merits of the Innocenti S presents a problem because it is necessary to take into account the price tag. At $2920 it is definitely out of the Sprite price range, and while it is certainly not inferior to the Sprite in any way, it is not $800 better and, furthermore, is not strikingly different. There is considerable pleasure to be derived from owning a car which is not frequently encountered, particularly if .it bears the mark of an Italian coachbuilder. Unfortunately, the Innocenti S is not sufficiently individual to stand out very far in a crowd.

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly a well finished and attractively designed small sports car, and it has the added virtue of being built around the well-tried BMC components, which eliminates the parts and service problem associated with any limited-production automobile. For those people who are enamored with the Sprite but would like, and can afford, a little more comfort and a little more class, the Innocenti S may well be the answer.

["Driver comfort rating," a new addition to the R&T data panel, shows the percentage of driver comfort characteristics that met the standards described in "The 99th Man," R&T, January 1964. 1n general, the higher the rating, the more comfortable the car will be for the driver. Of all the sports cars measured so tar, the average rating is 80 and 57, respectively, for drivers 69-in. and 75-in. tall. Thus a car with a rating of 90, 55 and 50 for 69, 72 and 75-in. tall drivers would be more comfortable than average for the driver of average height, and less comfortable than average for the tall driver.]